Back in 2005, when a 3,373-acre patch of land near the Sonoma Coast came into public ownership, it was envisioned that it would one day be part of the state parks system. That made sense as the land – known as Willow Creek – was adjacent to Sonoma Coast State Park. But that was then, and this is now, an era where there’s little public funding for anything, especially parks.

So the Willow Creek property is in that sort-of-closed, sort-of-open stage. It’s accessible only by permit, but the permit is free. That’s the model for what LandPaths, an area nonprofit that works to protect open spaces, is calling a “people-powered park.” LandPaths controls access to the property through a permit system, and in return, people get to use the land for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

Since it was a non-rainy, fairly warm day on Sunday, I found myself at Willow Creek – along with about 40 other curious people – for one of the permit orientation sessions. A similar program is in place for Taylor Mountain. And the county is running one for Tolay Lake Regional Park.

Here’s how the LandPaths process works. You register and show up for an orientation session, a LandPaths guide explains how the property came to be, you get an official-looking permit, and voila – you’re free to use the park.

Very straightforward.

To reach Willow Creek, it’s less than an hour’s drive from downtown Santa Rosa, either along Highway 116 and into Duncans Mills or through various back roads if the mood strikes you for a winding drive. The property is reached through a gate on Freezeout Road, which is locked except to permit-holders. Want to know the combination? Uh, get a permit.

P2070493The land is a lush collection of redwoods, oaks and firs, surrounding the aforementioned Willow Creek as well as Freezeout Creek. It was purchased for $22 million from the Mendocino Redwood Company, which stills own some nearby land. In fact, the area has quite a logging history. It was reported the site – back in 1848 – of the very first official logging permit issued in the state of California.

Want more history, somewhere on the property are the ruins of a ranch that existed to supply Russian soldiers at Fort Ross with vegetables. The ranch remains haven’t been found, so if you do stumble upon them, pat yourself on the back.

On the property itself, easily the showpiece hike is the 3.5-mile Islands in the Sky Vista loop that goes up to the park’s highest elevation, at 1,044 feet, and then through a meadow and circles back. It’s a bit of a steep climb initially but

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for active hikers, it’s not too taxing (credit dennis). There are a few other looping trails to explore, and thanks to LandPaths, the trails are well marked and there’s a great map you can print out and bring with you. Here’s a link to the map.

An even better route – one I hope to check out soon – is to start at the Freezeout Flat trailhead, go through the Willow Creek property and then eventually end up at Shell Beach. Any hike that comes out at the Pacific Ocean is worthwhile, in my opinion.

The next Willow Creek permit orientation will be Feb. 20. Following the one-hour session, there’ll be a guided hike. Like a lot of space-limited outings around here, the available slots fill up quickly so to check availability for the hike or to find out about other orientations, the best bet is to go to the LandPaths Web site.

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